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Are Contradictions the Real Point?

In my last couple of posts I’ve talked about internal contradictions in Luke-Acts and John.  I’ve had several readers tell me that they already “got the point” and so they don’t see any reason for me to keep harping on it: there are contradictions so you don’t think the Bible is inerrant.  OK OK OK, got the point!

As it turns out, that’s not really the point.

To be sure, it is *one* of the points.  But it’s not actually the main one.  If I had to explain fully why it matters that there are internal contradictions in an ancient document created by the use of disparate sources (the case with both Luke-Acts and John) I would do so under three distinct rubrics, each rather complex.

Religious implications.  Yes, if there are contradictions in a book found in the Bible that means that the common fundamentalist understanding that the text is inerrant is almost certainly wrong.  I have tried to word that statement carefully.  I’ve noticed that often in these kinds of discussions, people don’t listen carefully to wording that is careful.  So let me stress what I am saying, by highlighting the key words:  The common fundamentalist understanding that the text is inerrant is almost certainly wrong.

To explicate.  Contradictions would show that …

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If the Bible is Contradictory, How Can it Be Authoritative?
Internal Discrepancies in the Gospel of John



  1. Avatar
    clongbine  June 27, 2018

    For me reading these posts as an ex-fundamentalist I just like seeing the Bible the way it really is, and I enjoy the lesson and the educational exercise. I’ve noticed some posters seem to be here strictly to engage in “bashing” of Christian fundamentalism. The Bible is not something they seem to have ever appreciated and they have no real interest in it apart from “kicking it to make sure it’s dead.” At least, that’s how some of their posts come across. I appreciate your professionalism and knowledge on the subject. That’s the main reason I am here. Having listened to several of your courses from The Great Courses, the study of differences in scripture is a big part of your work, so I don’t understand why anyone would come to the blog and expect something different.

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  June 27, 2018

    A contradiction in Thucydides is no big deal. A contradiction in the supposedly perfect will of the perfect creator of the universe is world-shattering.

  3. Avatar
    forthfading  June 27, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    You commented before that the majority of New Testament scholars and theologians are believing Christians. Do the majority of these scholars fall into the realm of fundamentalism, or are they more “moderate” or “liberal”?


    • Bart
      Bart  June 29, 2018

      My hunch is that there are more evangelicals, but I don’t really know. I do know there aren’t many of us agnostics out there….

  4. Avatar
    Stephen  June 27, 2018

    To me the real problem is why an all powerful God who can do anything and presumably wishes to present a revelation to everyone as his followers claim, would use text to do so at all?

  5. Avatar
    mannix  June 27, 2018

    I’m probably jumping the gun on this and should await your further posts, but Christian churches are partly to blame for the “inerrancy” problem. Every time a Reading or Gospel is delivered in my church, it is followed by “This is the Word of the Lord” implying accurate human transmission of direct “dictation” of some nature by a supernatural entity (God). In fact the readings/gospels are simply the “Word(s)” of whoever wrote them! Accepting this would make discussion of contradictions and errors much easier by not threatening the faiths of individuals who desperately cling to a mandatory belief of inerrancy.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 29, 2018

      In most churches “This is the Word of the Lord” is definitely not meant to affirm any particular view of inspiration, especially not dictation. Usually that phrasing is used in more highly liturgical churches (e.g., Episcopalian), where such views are not affirmed.

  6. tompicard
    tompicard  June 27, 2018

    yeah, likewise, at least for me, its rather tedious to read your blogs that critique a kind of shallow christian viewpoint.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 29, 2018

      That’s the beauty of a blog: everyone can choose what to read!

  7. tompicard
    tompicard  June 27, 2018

    But i think Origen’s understanding of scripture is curious

    • Bart
      Bart  June 29, 2018

      It’s certainly unusual.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  June 29, 2018

        “If any one, as he pleases, form a dogma agreeable to himself, and then carefully search the Scriptures, he will be able to produce many testimonies from them in favour of the dogma that he has formed.” – Pseudo-Clementine Homilies,III,9

  8. Avatar
    Sabina  June 27, 2018

    Could it be said that Prophets are inspired in much the way that artists/poets, secular poets are inspired by something greater than themselves, by something more profound than the daily brain lint of mere survival?
    Monks chant to remove themselves from the distractions of subsistence. Trance states have been achieved/attained by holy people through meditation as well as through the imbibing of ‘ sacred’ substances. Why did so many users of LSD, back in the 1960s claim to “see God”?
    I don’t know how DNA came about (although we do know that biological evolution took way longer than its detractors are willing to wrap their heads around), but the answer to “creation” will be found at the microscopic level. Didn’t physicists quite recently name a God Particle? The truth is out there (and in here!). Time to re watch
    the Eames film Powers of Ten.
    Science is the closest I come to “religion”, and although its “exactness” is certainly fallible, I trust scientists to save the human race and the planet we all share before I trust any church to do the same. If the clergy honestly care about their flock they would do better to read from Al Gore than from the Bible.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 29, 2018

      That would certainly be a way to make sense of what they’re doing. They themselves appear to have thought they actually had a message given them by God (not the words but the message)

    • talmoore
      talmoore  June 29, 2018

      “Didn’t physicists quite recently name a God Particle?”

      Physicists didn’t name the Higgs Boson the “God Particle”. They do not call it that. That name comes from journalists, not scientists.

  9. Avatar
    snf7893  June 27, 2018

    Hi Dr. Ehrman,

    Regarding historical mistakes, you (and many others) have stated that you believe the character of Moses is a myth. What evidence, or lack thereof, has drawn you to this conclusion? If he were indeed real, what sort of evidence should we expect?


    • Bart
      Bart  June 29, 2018

      The problem is that our earliest references to him are from three centuries or more after he allegedly lived. Given the fact (which I take to be a fact) that the stories connected with him involve events that almost certainly didn’t transpire (an exodus of several million people from Egypt and the destruction of the Egyptian army, e.g.) then I should think that the stories about him are simply later legends. What evidence would we hope for in his case? Contemporary records, for example, and references to him in disinterested sources (Egyptian records, e.g.)

      • Avatar
        Sabina  June 29, 2018

        But aren’t most accounts in the Bible greatly exaggerated, most likely for effect? Methuselah lived 900 years, for example! I have no difficulty believing that their was an important historical figure called Moses, who was a leader among his people in exile. What’s a few hundred years, where oral tradition is concerned, and why wouldn’t any story grow legs after countless, generational retellings?
        I don’t believe in “miracles”, in the same sense that I don’t believe natural disasters are “acts of God”, but I do believe that Jesus lived, preached and was crucified. And I don’t think it is a stretch to believe that Moses came down from the mountain (whether literally or figuratively, but perhaps after a good, long headscratching) with a logical set of helpful rules of societal conduct for his peeps.
        A First Nations (Haida) friend of mine asked me one day if I thought there ever actually was an historical Jesus.
        I said yes, indeed, and lent her my copy of Jesus, Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman. She didn’t find the time to read it, but that’s beside the point.

      • Avatar
        RVBlake  June 29, 2018

        Exodus of several million? I thought the Bible gave 600,00 as the figure. I just googled it on a Christian website, as well. Regardless, there were 2 Israeli archaeologists who, some time back, looked exhaustively for evidence of a 40-year hike by hundreds of thousands across the Sinai. I think their names were Silberstein and Finkelstein. They apparently found nothing. Unless these were exceptionally environmentally conscious hikers, that is.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 1, 2018

          The 600,000 are soldier-aged men. Not counting women and children.

          • Avatar
            RVBlake  July 2, 2018

            That’s a sizable contingent of warrior-aged men. I wonder how large the Pharaoh’s army was. Of course the Hebrews would’ve had a problem with acquiring weapons.

        • Avatar
          GregAnderson  July 2, 2018

          Even funnier is the relatively short distance from Cairo to Jerusalem. To take 40 years to make that journey requires that your group move only 95 feet per day!

      • Avatar
        anthonygale  June 29, 2018

        A lot of the same can be said about Jesus. Paul’s letters and the Gospels are not disinterested accounts and contain stories that (people will debate this of course) probably didn’t happen. I realize with Jesus we are in a better position than Moses. Decades is better than centuries, but perhaps Jesus is at an advantage because he didn’t live as long ago. We have Josephus and Tacitus, but given how far Christianity spread perhaps Jesus had an increased likelihood of being referenced by a disinterested party. I’m not doubting that Jesus lived or convinced that Moses did. But why do folks thinks it is “probable” that Moses didn’t exist? Lack of evidence is not evidence of lacking. Evidence may be soft, but is it really much worse off than for other figures people think probably lived or may have lived?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 1, 2018

          I’m not sure there’s really much of comparison between Moses and Jesus — with the latter we have reports from people (at least one) who was alive in his own day, not just rumors/legends from centuries later!

          • Avatar
            anthonygale  July 1, 2018

            I agree that the evidence for Jesus’ existence is much greater than for Moses. I just thought the reasons you cited for doubting Moses’ existence could also be said about Jesus. I get the sense that there is reason to doubt the reliability of texts/stories written about Jesus, but there is still convincing evidence that he existed nonetheless. With Moses you have the former but not so much the latter.

            If there was a historical Moses, loosely related to what we find in the Bible, is it likely there would be solid evidence of his existence? Or would the absence of evidence be expected? What I am getting at is: is there really sufficient evidence to say there probably was no Moses or is it more fair to say (much like in the case of a King Arthur) there may have been one but, if so, we can’t say much about him?

          • Bart
            Bart  July 2, 2018

            It depends entirely on what you mean by “there was a Moses.” If we know literally nothing about him, other than his name — what does it give us?

          • Avatar
            tomruda  July 1, 2018

            What about between Jesus and Enoch? I read recently that there was an early group in Christianity that made this connection in that Enoch did not die and his name means “son of Man”

          • Bart
            Bart  July 2, 2018

            Not sure what you’re asking. I don’t think htere really was an Enoch.

          • talmoore
            talmoore  July 2, 2018

            Enoch doesn’t mean “son of man”. (You may have it confused with the Aramaic “enash” which does mean “man”.) Enoch probably comes from the semitic root chet-nun-kaph, which means to foster — as in to raise up a child, educate a child, nurture a child, etc. So in this sense Enoch could mean “he who fosters”.

  10. epicurus
    epicurus  June 27, 2018

    My favourite posts are when you talk about the contradictions and problems in the Bible, regardless of the reason, regardless of whether some think it’s repetitive. It is what drew me to your writing initially, and I still prefer it to other topics, although they are also of course interesting.

  11. Avatar
    fishician  June 27, 2018

    In your discussions or debates with fundamentalists, how do they deal with the question of what good is an infallible book if the people reading it are very fallible? For example, a KJV-using member of a Church of Christ can get into a real fight with a KJV-using member of a Baptist church over whether it is necessary to be baptized to be saved. That’s a pretty basic and important doctrine and yet the various denominations can’t even come to agreement on it.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 29, 2018

      Yes, I knew a fundamentalist who said you had to be baptized in HIS CHURCH (not his denomination: his local church) in order to be saved!!!

      • dschmidt01
        dschmidt01  June 30, 2018

        Sometimes you can’t fix stupid. The thing that bothers me most about fundamentalists is the inordinate amount of political power they wield in this country. All the laws to save me from a hell I don’t believe in. Thanx for blogging and being so charitable. Do you ever find it ironic you as an agnostic are helping the poor as Jesus instructed more than most christians?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 1, 2018

          I just don’t understand why some Christians fixate on social issues never once talked about by Jesus and blithely ignore the ones that are….

          • Lev
            Lev  July 1, 2018


            Have you ever considered running for political office, Bart? I think you would be awesome!

            Maybe the Evangelical wing of US society needs someone exactly like you – an agnostic reminding them to care about the things that Jesus urged us to care about – a non-believer out Jesus-ing the followers of Jesus?

            Possible slogan? “Make America Believe Again” #Bart2020

        • talmoore
          talmoore  July 1, 2018

          We can thank Evangelicals for the current administration. When “values voters” unite, this is the guy they put in charge.

          Should tell you something.

        • Pattycake1974
          Pattycake1974  July 12, 2018

          I share in the collective frustration with evangelical Christianity and their views for certain social issues. I deal with it off and on both professionally and personally. But I do think we can be overly harsh on them too. There’s studies that state Christians are more charitable than the nonreligious, and it could be as high as 75%.


          • Bart
            Bart  July 14, 2018

            Does the study indicate whether the “charity” they supported was mainly their own church — or was it to help those in need?

          • Pattycake1974
            Pattycake1974  July 14, 2018

            “Religious giving accounts for 32 percent of all U.S. charitable giving, the study found, but that number may underestimate the influence that religious belief has on charity. The study used a narrow definition of “religious giving” that does not include donations to faith-based nonprofits that provide human services, such as Catholic hospitals or universities….Some studies, using a more expansive definition of “religious giving,” have estimated that faith motivates as much as 75 percent of all charity in the United States.”

            The News Gallup Poll says that religious giving is down while overall charity is steady, possibly due to religious decline. I read another article that says fewer households are contributing, but the ones that are contributing are giving more. Higher education and higher income is associated with more giving.

            I tend to agree with News Gallup which says religious or not, Americans generally like to give to charity.

            Some of the top charities in the U.S. are either faith based or rooted in faith—United Way (#1 in ranking), The Salvation Army, YMCA, St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, Habitat for Humanity, and Feeding America. That doesn’t include other leading Christian charities that provide a range of services both here and globally.

          • Pattycake1974
            Pattycake1974  July 14, 2018

            Just to add to my previous comment: From what I understand, the study indicates that the religious were giving more to nonreligious causes and that faith has an impact on giving to charity as much as 75%. But the News Gallup Poll says Americans just like to give whether or not they’re religious. I don’t know if a poll can be trusted as much as a study…

            My point being, there’s a lot of people, especially on social media, that keep repeating this idea of Christians being selfish and uncharitable. I haven’t found that to be true. If anything, I’ve found the opposite even among evangelicals. If someone else has a legitimate study to counter that then I’m open to it.

  12. Avatar
    ellispm35  June 27, 2018

    The OT contains the most shocking contradictions and profoundly problematic accounts in the entire Bible. It’s no wonder so many people shy away from this part of scripture. I’ve been a member of this blog for three years and have never recommended a book in a post. If you need help navigating your way out of Oz (or, at least, a better understanding of the landscape) I encourage you to read “How to Read the Bible” by James Kugel. Boring title, but a masterfully written and exhilarating book that will enlighten just as much as it disturbs. It’s also written by someone of faith that is sympathetic to the plight. A rare jewel.

  13. Avatar
    ask21771  June 27, 2018

    How much money did the Roman empire make off the city of rome through trade

    • Bart
      Bart  June 29, 2018

      I’m not following you. The Roman empire was centered in Rome. It wasn’t a foreign city from which revenues were collected. Are you asking how much trade income was generated from the city itself? I don’t know how to answer the question.

    • Avatar
      turbopro  June 29, 2018

      Perhaps you can start here at wikipedia –> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_economy

      For an academic study, google “Banking and business in the Roman World” by Jean Andreau, Cambridge Univ Press, 1999

  14. Avatar
    gavriel  June 27, 2018

    A repeated question: Critical scholars have been tracing contradictions in the gospels, assuming they have arisen from traditions wandering in various directions from one coherent starting point far back, being corrupted over time. How do we know that the teachings of Jesus were not contradiction free? I tried to ask you recently about the apparent contraction between Matthew 23 and the Sermon on the Mount(5:43-). Do we face an original contradiction or a contradiction induced by the flow of oral traditions?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 29, 2018

      They could well have had contradictions! God knows lots of other public figures contradict themselves. Sometimes daily!

      • Avatar
        gavriel  June 30, 2018

        I hate being cantankerous, but: Is it really impossible to resolve this? It has been a puzzle to me since my youth. If Jesus really had these hateful attitudes to Jewish competitors, it would explain how easily he was passed over to the Romans. Or are the “seven woes” just Matthew’s continuation of the theme given in the parable in the opening of ch. 22, something not going back to Jesus?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 1, 2018

          The seven woes are directed ot the scribes and Pharisees. But it was the Sadducees who eventually did him in.

  15. Avatar
    cmdenton47  June 27, 2018

    Very well written. Sometimes your prose just sings. As a former high school math teacher, I greatly appreciate the logic and how you explain it.

  16. Avatar
    Tony  June 27, 2018

    Fundamentalist have their own narratives and they aim to make them bullet proof! Here is a sampling of a local fundamentalist church associations’ “What We Believe” statement. The last one is particularly clever.

    – We hold to the creation and fall of humanity as described in the first chapters of Genesis, not as myth, but as historic facts.

    – This Association regards homosexual desires and behavior as sinful and contrary to God’s intent for His children (Lev. 18:22; 20:13; Deut. 23:18; Rom. 1:27; 1 Cor. 6:9-11).

    – Scripture is clear and there is an internal clarity to Scripture. Any ambiguity or contradictions that one may find in Scripture is not the fault of Scripture but is our fault. No one understands one thing of what is in the Scriptures unless he has the Spirit of God. All people have a darkened heart. Scripture interprets us.

  17. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  June 28, 2018

    Dr Bart, do you think if earlier manuscripts that could have damaging impact on Christians faith were discovered it could or would be suppressed?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 29, 2018

      Almost certainly not.

    • Avatar
      GregAnderson  July 2, 2018

      Only if the documents were smuggled out of the Middle East, sold on the black market, hidden in an American safe deposit box, and then stored in a freezer somewhere, which … hey, wait a minute! 😉

  18. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  June 28, 2018

    Then Jesus said to the woman, “I was sent only to help God’s lost sheep–the people of Israel.”
    ◄ Matthew 10:6 ►Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.
    ◄ Matthew 10:5 ►These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans.
    Based on the following verses is it not contradictory to believe Jesus wasn’t discriminatary?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 29, 2018

      He certainly appears to have thought that his mission was to Jews living in Israel.

      • Avatar
        Tony  June 29, 2018

        Or Matthew, representing Peter’s followers, placed pro-Jewish and anti-Gentile texts on the lips of his Jesus.

      • Robert
        Robert  July 1, 2018

        “He certainly appears to have thought that his mission was to Jews living in Israel.”

        Depending on how much importance Jesus placed on “the twelve,” known already by Paul, Jesus could have seen his mission to include the ‘lost’ tribes of Northern Israel, which would have included many people of mixed Israeli-Gentile heritage. I think this might have contributed to the early outreach to Gentiles so soon after Jesus death.

  19. Avatar
    ddecker54  June 28, 2018

    “The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.” – Benjamin Franklin

    • Avatar
      John Uzoigwe  June 29, 2018

      Haha haha why would I want to read that?

  20. cheito
    cheito  June 28, 2018

    My conclusion is that some of the books in the bible are the words of God, and that the other books in the bible were written by authors that did not know the lord, and/or had never seen the lord… All 66 books included in the Protestant bible have been redacted to such an extent, that in many places the details about the historical facts within it, can not be ascertained. All we can know for certain is that Jesus died on a cross, but we can not know exactly what Jesus said while on the cross, because the authors of the gospels contradict each other on this, and other historical events. The bottom line is that the words of God have been altered, and there are many books included in the bible that don’t belong in the canon.

    • Avatar
      godspell  July 2, 2018

      Couldn’t we all just read these books–or any other book–and decide for ourselves what makes sense, what feels true, or false?

      But to do that, we’d have to acknowledge that God is the author of the universe–not books.

      We write books, and maybe something inspires us sometimes, but it’s still us writing them, and they are still the words of men and women. If something of the divine can be felt more in some than others, that means something. But it won’t mean exactly the same thing to everyone. Not now, not ever.

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